As a typical British man – in that I’m naturally cynical not a tweed wearing, thundering racist – you go to watch a film so critically praised with a sense of trepidation. La La Land has been praised to the high heavens months before general release. As things tend to work, films that can be affectionately or disdainfully referred to as “Oscar bait” tend to reach the eyes of the industry and the press during the festivals such as Cannes and Sundance before us plebs lay our eyes on them.
So there I was, taking my seat to see a film that already cleaned up at the Golden Globes and looked set to clean up through the rest of awards season. Would this film meet expectations? From the musical number – which looks like it is filmed in one continuous shot – I was totally sold on this film. It is truly wonderful, it looks stunning. Invoking that golden age of Hollywood but infusing it with a powerful and grittier emotional sensibility. When done well, musicals really are greatest and most life-affirming artform there is.
That isn’t to say writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) has mixed Singin’ in the Rain with Blue Valentine. Nevertheless, Chazelle very cleverly uses the explosions of fabulous songs, superbly choreographed numbers and big, bright colours to explore love, loss and the less celebrated side of trying to crack show business.
The story follows two people in Los Angeles chasing distant dreams. Mia (Emma Stone) an actress relentlessly trying to get her big break and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) a jazz musician with dreams of running a successful jazz club. The two fall in love and their personal and professional lives intertwine into a bittersweet story of two people on the edge of tremendous success and crushing failure.
What makes this film so superb is all the subtleties. Mia rehearsing lines in the car on the way to a brutal and unsuccessful audition; changing into comfortable shoes at the end of a night out during a song; kicking the dirt from underneath their feet; jobbing musicians being forced to play soul destroying Christmas music in public houses; the sprawling, centreless layout of LA and its hazy skies.
Chazelle superbly blends Hollywood magic and its bold, bright color palette and penchant for fairy tales with mundanity and reality. The grind of a struggling artist trying to catch a break in a city that can be as unforgiving as it is enchanting. In many ways, this film is much closer to New York New York, the Martin Scorsese musical, or Clint Eastwood’s take on The Jersey Boys, rather than Singin’ in the Rain.
It goes even deeper than that though. Chazelle, with Justin Hurwitz’s incredible musical score, expresses a genuine melancholy, rather than a phony, commercial sadness just to bleed cash out of professional grievers. The message is clear but not necessarily the idealized happy one: You can’t have everything you want in life just because the movies say so. Nevertheless, you should enjoy the journey along the way, however long or short it may be.
The performances match the vision of the director. It is all about the leads and they are magnificent. Emma Stone has an unearthly quality to light up a room and convey untold emotional depth with her understated but powerful mannerisms. She also demonstrates her ability for comedy and drama superbly well. Her big solo number “The Fools who Dream” is breathtaking and sweeps you up in a wave of emotion.
Ryan Gosling, as he always is, exudes a charismatic screen presence and level of expression from his eyes is astonishing. Without having to do very much Gosling can ratchet up the intensity and quickly change the mood. Together, Stone and Gosling share terrific chemistry and every bit believable as two people in a whirlwind romance.
La La Land is a triumph. It easily exceeds all expectations built up from months of rave reviews. It is an explosion of color and magnificent music with real emotional depth. You’ll smile, you’ll laugh and you’ll cry and will want to immediately head back into the cinema to experience it all over again.